Imagine cooking and enjoying food every day but never getting full relief from it later on. Most people can down a large meal and see its effect on the stomach, loosening their belts a notch while it settles. Later, they can return their bloated belly to normal size by a good trip to the restroom. For some people, this digestive process doesn’t happen quite so well, and they’re left with severe constipation. In rare cases, these people even suffer from birth.
Constipation Since Birth
One such man from China has had to deal with irregular bowel movements ever since he was born. Like many others, his parents didn’t consider the constipation a serious medical condition.
However, doctors did when the man came in with an abdomen so swollen that the skin had tightened around his stomach. He had tried laxatives with little change to help his irregular bowels, and the man simply suffered with his condition into adulthood.
Recently, the man underwent surgery to remove 30 inches from his colon and restore his gastrointestinal health. The surgery released this man from 28 pounds of waste and a severely stretched colon.
How could a man go more than 20 years with such severe constipation? The answer is Hirschsprung’s disease.
People with this condition literally have missing nerve cells in the muscles of the colon. Normally, these nerve cells would help the muscles contract to push waste products along.
When a person lacks these nerves, his body has no way of signaling the muscles to contract. With this rare condition, the sufferer keeps the waste inside his colon until enough builds up to push it along.
The disease can cause a multitude of problems such as gas, alternating constipation and diarrhea, a swollen belly, and fatigue. Patients also have a high risk of getting enterocolitis, or inflammation of the colon and the small intestine.
If a baby has Hirschsprung’s disease, doctors and parents can usually tell right away. The baby might not have a normal bowel movement within the first 48 hours of birth, and doctors are forced to figure out this problem. Unfortunately, this man’s condition went unchecked until his twenties.
Other Causes & Treatment
While other people cannot usually pin their bowel problems to Hirschsprung’s disease, many do suffer gastrointestinal issues. According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 60 million people suffer from chronic constipation.
The Mayo Clinic outlines severe constipation as passing fewer than three stools in one week, having to strain for bowel movements, passing hard stools, and needing help such as laxatives to gain a bowel movement.
Anytime a person has constipation coupled with severe stomach pain, or even persistent irregular bowel movements, he should see a doctor. Severe pain may warrant a trip to the emergency room since the person may have a bowel obstruction.
People might experience chronic constipation for a number of reasons. They could have an obstruction related to cancer, problems with the rectum, neurological problems like Parkinson’s, or a spinal cord injury.
Even hormonal imbalances and weakened pelvic muscles can offset normal bowel habits. Although Hirschsprung’s occurs more often in men, women have a higher tendency to develop chronic constipation overall.
For most mild bouts of constipation, people can drink plenty of water and up their fiber intake. They may want to consider a fiber supplement to ensure that they’re getting plenty.
They could also take a laxative, although they should try increasing fiber first. Again, if the problem continues or worsens, a sufferer should see a doctor.
Severe constipation can be a serious medical condition, as in the case of the Chinese man. Outside of the general stomach discomfort, people suffering with constipation may experience a slew of other problems like gas or stomach pain. A person should always look into irregular and persistent symptoms further to maintain good health.
This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.